The Egypt-Hamas deal: a piece of the changing regional puzzle

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Fatah negotiator Azzam al-Ahmed 

On October 13, 2017, Hamas and Fatah signed the “Palestinian reconciliation agreement” in Cairo. The deal was brokered by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and high-level officials from the General Intelligence Directorate, an agency with a key role in Egyptian security.

The agreement provides a few temporary solutions: Hamas will transfer administrative powers in Gaza to the Palestinian Authority; European observers will return to the Rafah border-crossing and, finally, the Palestinian Authority will take full responsibility for the control of the borders. In addition, the deal foresees elections within a year and the creation of an interim government guided by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah of the Fatah party. Nevertheless, several obstacles lie ahead, such as the disarming of Hamas’s military wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, which comprises 30,000 operatives and is one of the most powerful militias operating in the Middle East. Another challenge is addressing the jobs of Hamas’s 40,000 civil government employees.

The idea of an agreement is nothing new. In the recent past, other initiatives to promote a Palestinian reconciliation were launched by Saudi Arabia (2007), Egypt (2011) and Qatar (2012). However, no agreement has ever come into force. Deals signed by Fatah and Hamas in April 2012 and in May 2014 both failed, the latter being reached just a few months before the war in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014.

Despite its political relevance, the current deal was met with negativity in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that an intra-Palestinian rapprochement would make “peace much harder to achieve”. On the contrary, it was seen in a positive light in Egypt, especially as a new attempt to re-launch peace talks between Israel and a Palestinian unified political front. Cairo made a significant effort to appease Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

The compromise was in the making for several months, and. the reconciliation efforts now stand to demonstrate that stabilizing security borders and defining a new political path in the MENA region embody two indivisible and global pillars in Egyptian security and foreign policy. The deal represents an attempt by Egypt to restore its central role in the region., with this agreement, Cairo may have even launched a new challenge to the Iranian influence, acting as an ensign of Saudi Arabian regional politics.

Although this is still an exaggeration, Al-Sisi’s strategy is indeed aimed at regaining regional relevance through the creation of an autonomous political space in which to redefine a new geopolitical status in the Middle East. In the short to medium term, Egypt’s intervention in the Palestinian negotiations reflects a specific change of attitude toward foreign and domestic policy. The main Egyptian target in the Palestinian deal remains the containment of Islamist and jihadist militias in the Gaza Strip and the stabilization in the Sinai Peninsula. Moreover, these actions are aimed at eradicating a deeper proliferation of illicit trafficking (illegal immigration, arms and drugs smuggling) through tunnels from Gaza to Sinai and vice versa. The extreme heterogeneity of these threats has demonstrated once again the high risk posed by Salafi-Jihadi groups and the resulting Egyptian fear for the growth of terrorist connections along the Egyptian-Gazan axis.

In the longer run, the reconciliation agreement could truly be a turning point, especially for Hamas and its new leadership. Relations between Egypt and Hamas have been typically tense, especially after the fall of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and the ban of the Muslim Brotherhood in December 2013. Since late 2014, with the rise of the Islamic State, ties gradually improved and Hamas began an unofficial security cooperation with Egypt (and Israel). After the election of a new leadership in February 2017, and the adoption of a new statute in May 2017 – in which the group broke ties with the Muslim Brotherhood –, Hamas leader Yahya al-Sinwar decided to fully restore relations with Egypt. This meaningful decision also explains the “pragmatic” evolution of Hamas’ ideology, as it was aimed not only to expand relations with Cairo, but also to open a diplomatic path with the other Arab regional powers (Saudi Arabia and UAE, in primis) and Israel.

However, without a complete reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority and a full responsibility/obligation to negotiate a peace deal with Israel, a future political role in the new Middle East is impossible for Hamas. In fact, while the Islamist organization was engaged in talks with Egypt, a delegation from its political bureau maintained close relations with Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah. In this respect, Israel’s worst nightmare would be to accept a “Hezbollah model” in Gaza, with a strong Iranian sponsorship and the Lebanese Shia militia operating as a military supplier of Hamas. For all these reasons, the process was hindered by Israel, which has grounds to fear that Hamas is a double agent for both Egypt and Iran.

In this constantly evolving regional setting, Egypt sponsored the Palestinian agreement in order to encourage Hamas to pledge allegiance to the Saudi bloc and to cut ties with its regional partners (Iran, Turkey and Qatar) and terrorist groups operating in the Gaza Strip (Al-Qaeda and Islamic State).

In the current volatile scenario, it is hard to determine whether it was actually Hamas or Egypt that gain most in this new geopolitical challenge. In any case, this is a sign that more changes are under way.

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